GLSEN has long been a leader in the movement to make schools safer and more inclusive for LGBT students in the United States, and we are committed to supporting a similar mission worldwide. As attention to LGBT issues in education has been growing around the world, requests for consultation and dialogue regarding GLSEN's approach, successes and lessons learned have also steadily increased.
In June 2014, the U.S. Embassy in Athens invited me to speak at the first conference of the EU Antibullying Network about LGBT students in the U.S. and their experiences with bullying, violence and discrimination, and to discuss GLSEN’s approaches to effect change. While in Greece, the embassy staff coordinated a meeting with one of the leaders of Colour Youth, a local LGBT youth organization, to discuss possible ways GLSEN could provide technical assistance. In the ensuing months, the embassy, GLSEN and Colour Youth developed a fellowship program where someone from Colour Youth would have a three-week residency at GLSEN as an international fellow to learn about our strategies and programs and to also meet with other LGBT youth serving organizations here in New York City.
Below is a brief interview I did with our international fellow Kimon Panagiotopolous for us to learn more about his work with Colour Youth and his time with us at GLSEN.
Joe Kosciw: Tell us a little bit about what Colour Youth does?
Kimon Panagiotopolous: Colour Youth - Athens LGBTQ Youth Community is the only legally recognized LGBTQ youth group in Greece. It first appeared in 2010, after a few Athens Pride volunteers decided that there should be an LGBTQ group in Athens with a focus on youth. It was legally recognized in 2012 as a member-led volunteer organization, and began holding weekly open meetings starting in September 2012. In 2014 it ran its first funded program, ”Vote for Your Rights” in partnership with Athens Pride, a program focusing on the 2014 European Elections and the attitude of political parties and candidates towards LGBT-related issues. Later that year, Colour Youth started its second program, “Tell Us!” Funded by European Economic Association grants, "Tell Us!" focuses on recording incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination, as well as providing support to victims. Apart from advocacy and service-providing, Colour Youth is actively involved in community building, with weekly meetings that are attended frequently by more than 40 people, non-formal education trainings, seminars, as well as more fun meetings for LGBTQ youth to socialize.
J: How did you personally get involved with Colour Youth?
K: My reasons to get involved with Colour Youth were two-fold. First, there was the rather straightforward need to socialize in an environment different from bars and clubs, or the anonymity of the Internet. What really propelled me to become more involved, however, was the 2012 national elections in Greece, which resulted in ‘Golden Dawn’, a neo-Nazi party, joining the parliament. No more than two months later, there was a huge rise in incidents of physical homophobic violence. That was, in many ways, a wake-up call for me. I could no longer just sit and watch events unfold without taking some action, and Colour Youth seemed like the ideal place for me to become involved.
J: What are you most looking forward to learning about during your time at GLSEN?
K: The gossip of course! Joking aside, the first thing would be tools for organizational development. Although Colour Youth has greatly evolved since I first became involved, it is still a very young NGO [non-governmental organization] facing several problems common to young groups, such as member engagement, lack of a simple crisis resolution system and burnout. The chance to learn from GLSEN’s long experience will certainly be valuable. Another aspect is the development of safe space tools, both internally for Colour Youth and for use in other places (such as classrooms), again an area where GLSEN has an expertise. Last but not least, advocating against bullying and harassment, as well as providing solutions to the issue is something that I believe Colour Youth can really make use of.
J: What are some of the major problems facing LGBT students in Greek schools?
K: I would say the major problem is not the actual problems, per se, but the attitude of the powers-that-be towards the problems. Greece is quite conservative in how it deals with students, so there is certainly a lot of bullying, harassment and in some cases, outright institutionalized discrimination. Especially for trans students. More alarming, however, is that relatively few people actually consider this a problem, and the most common attitude is “oh well, kids will be kids, it’s just in their nature to pick on each other” or “yeah, bullying is an issue, but certainly not in my school/district/city”. There are several good laws and policies which are very rarely implemented, and usually it depends on the goodwill of a few key people who are more aware of the problems and willing to take action, rather than on a nationwide scale. Furthermore, several NGOs that tackle issues of bullying are extremely reluctant to even mention sexual orientation and gender identity or expression even when that is the obvious cause, largely due to fear from backlash from teachers and the ever-present Orthodox Church. For LGBT students in rural areas, things are even worse since they don’t have the option to socialize in a youth group, leading to even further marginalization. All that is compounded by a lack of any research data on bullying, again because no one is either willing or able to mention sexual orientation and gender identity in school surveys.
J: "Research data"! Now you're speaking my language! While you're at GLSEN, I hope we can talk about ways we can be helpful to Colour Youth regarding research! Does Colour Youth plan to do more work on school-relatedissues? If so, what might that be?
K: Colour Youth has repeatedly tried, along with other LGBT groups, to tackle issues on education and has been met with immense resistance. To name a most glaring example, the Ministry of Education’s Office for Bullying and Harassment canceled a scheduled meeting with LGBT groups when it was informed that a trans person would be attending. Having tried and failed to deal with the issue on an institutional level, Colour Youth is currently considering utilizing a more grassroots–approach, working more directly with students, empowering them and informing them of their rights, as well as trying to provide a safe space for students and teenagers to meet, socialize and express themselves –something they typically cannot do at their school since extra-curricular activities are very rare in Greek schools. It is a very ambitious thought, but I am hopeful that GLSEN’s expertise can help us realize that.
J: I know you will be spending a lot of time with our fabulous staff in our Education & Youth Programs department, who can certainly help you think through how better to create safe spaces for LGBT students. But enough about work! This is your first time in NYC, what fun tourist things do you hope to do when you're here?
Nothing original, I fear! I plan to visit some major landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, as well as socialize a bit and see what all the fuss is about with New York nightlife. Unfortunately though, I will also have to endure the cold weather here (and yes, it is cold for my Mediterranean taste) before I can really explore the city.
J: It's great having you at GLSEN, Kimon. It has also been incredibly valuable to hear about community organizing and providing supports to LGBT youth from the Greek perspective. I hope this is the beginning of a long-lasting friendship between GLSEN and Colour Youth!
Joe Kosciw, Ph.D., is GLSEN’s Chief Research & Strategy Officer.
In honor of World Teachers’ Day (October 5th), Education International (EI), the global association of national education unions, launched its “Unite for Quality Education” campaign today with simultaneous events at UNICEF in New York and UNESCO in Paris. This new mobilization effort calls upon member unions, governments and civil society to demand a free, high-quality education for every student. GLSEN applauds EI’s new campaign and we are particularly heartened that one of its key pillars is to promote supportive and safe environments for teaching and learning.
At the launch event at UNICEF this morning, speakers from around the world talked about how one supportive educator can make a world of difference in the life of a student. GLSEN’s two decades of experience underscore how true that is for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth here in the United States. And, since 1999, the GLSEN National School Climate Survey has consistently shown that when an LGBT student is able to identify supportive educators in their school, it benefits their individual well-being, their sense of belonging in school and their academic achievement. When educators intervene when hearing anti-LGBT remarks, when they intervene in the face of bullying or harassment, when they include positive representations of LGBT people, history or events in the curriculum and when they support a school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, they help to create an affirming learning environment for LGBT students. These supportive actions by educators can also promote a message of respect to all students, LGBT and non-LGBT alike.
GLSEN’s programmatic priorities reflect the importance of supportive teachers. Our professional development trainings for educators provide educators with the knowledge of LGBT student experiences and the skills to create safer and more affirming classrooms. Our curricular resources on LGBT issues provide materials for teachers to present positive and accurate representations of LGBT people, history and events. Our Safe Space Campaign is designed to make those supportive educators visible to LGBT students everywhere in the United States.
This past June, GLSEN, in partnership with UNESCO, convened an all-day meeting of activists and scholars from across the world to strategize about how to coordinate our collective resources and knowledge to reduce homophobic and transphobic prejudice and violence in schools globally. In honor of World Teachers’ Day, I would like to highlight some of the important work our partner organizations are doing with and for educators:
South Africa: GALA (Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action) and UNESCO will be hosting a colloquium: Transforming Classrooms, Transforming Lives: Combating Homophobia and Transphobia in Education in November in Johannesburg. The event will provide an opportunity for educators, policymakers, researchers and activists from across Southern Africa to discuss the scope and impact of homophobia and transphobia in the education sector.
Poland: Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia) recently conducted research on student and school staff on attitudes regarding homophobia in school and found that 8 in 10 teachers in Poland (82.6%) believe that the topic of homosexuality and homophobia should be present in the school curriculum and about 8 in 10 (77.7%) reported that they do discuss LGBT issues in class.
Brazil: Through their Gênero e Diversidade na Escola (Gender and Diversity in School) professional education program, CLAM (Centro Latino-Americano em Sexualidade e Direitos Humano) has trained over 35,000 educators across Brazil.
Australia: Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) is a coalition of schools and individuals working toward safer educational environments for the whole school community. SSCV offers a myriad of training opportunities for educators, including their recent workshop: Beyond the Gender Binary: Creating inclusive environments for transgender and gender diverse students, staff and families.
We at GLSEN applaud the work of all our partner organizations across the globe working on LGBT issues in education. And moreover, we honor all educators everywhere who are making schools safer and more affirming for LGBT youth.